Much has been written about Akira Kurosawa. He is undoubtedly one of most successful foreign filmmakers to ever emerge on the American market, and his directorial style has been widely emulated by many who came to follow. With the success of his 1950 film, Rashomon, which took the top prize at the Venice Film Festival, Kurosawa could very well be credited with introducing Japanese cinema to the West. He developed a large number of followers, more notably George Lucas (who based the story for the original Star Wars on Kurosawa’s 1958 film, The Hidden Fortress) and Francis Ford Coppola, who together with Lucas convinced 20th Century Fox to co-fund the 1980 film, Kagemusha. A large number of Kurosawa’s films are period pieces, set in Imperial Japan and utilizing the samurai as his mode of storytelling. A great admirer of 19th Century Russian literature, Dostoevsky in particular, his stories often involve that of the human condition, usually exposing the darker side of which. Ikiru is a brief excursion from the usual samurai backdrop he favors, and its message is an uplifting one—delivered in the face of great adversity, while supplying a darkly humorous commentary on the system of bureaucracy many of us have fallen prisoner to.
Set in post-WWII Japan, the first image the audience is shown is an X-ray of a man’s stomach. The narrator informs us that the person whose stomach this belongs to is stricken with terminal cancer. We are then shown the pitiable man, Watanabe, who is chief officer of Public Affairs in the local governmental offices. He is dutiful employee, a cog in the monstrous machine of bureaucracy, who quietly boasts that he has never missed a day of work in thirty years. As we watch him mechanically apply his seal to a stack of documents the narrator tells us that, “It would be boring to talk of him now, for this man is barely alive”. In this early scene is a delightful sequence showing us how ineffectively the local bureaucracy works: a group of women, concerned about an open sewer in their neighborhood, in which mosquitoes are transmitting disease to their children, come to complain. They start in one department, it could be the Department of Health—I honestly don’t remember which, but are given the runaround and are referred to virtually every other department in the building, including the Deputy Mayor’s office. At one point they file their complaint with Watanabe, who for the time being has more important matters on his mind: his own health.
Watanabe does what he has never done, and takes a day off from work in order to see a doctor. There he meets a fellow patient, who seems to dabble in the practice of diagnoses, and warns Watanabe of the perils of stomach cancer. “It’s a death sentence,” he tells him. Turns out stomach cancer is exactly what Watanabe has, though the doctors elect to not tell him and insist that it is merely a minor ulcer. But Watanabe, guided either by paranoia or intuition can see through the doctors’ deception. It’s this stunning realization that teaches Watanabe that he really hasn’t lived a day in his life. He’s been a widower since his son, who appears to be in his mid-twenties, was a child. And he purposefully neglected to remarry, relegating himself to his miserable existence for the sake of his son, who is terrible ingrate besides.
Shortly after consulting with the doctors, Watanabe meets a man at a restaurant who takes great pity on him, but who subsequently helps to him have his carpe diem moment. They have a wild night on the town: playing pinball, going to dance clubs, and even a striptease. At a honky-tonk bar, Watanabe brings the boisterous action to a halt when he requests an old country song, “Life is Brief”, and transfixes the clientele into a state of bewilderment as he sings along eerily.
The following day Watanabe runs into a young girl from the office, whom he begins using most of his savings to show a good time. He sees that she is capable of enjoying life. While he is all too aware of the fact that he is unable to, he manages to take great pleasure in watching her enjoy herself. Watanabe’s brother convinces his son that the change in his behavior is due to his pursuing a woman, and the son begins to get annoyed watching his father spend away the inheritance he and his young wife so desperately need. The relationship is short lived however, and Watanabe returns to work after a two-week absence. Realizing that he is short on time, he decides to valiantly undertake the task of addressing the sewage issue by having it cleaned up and constructing a park in its place. Fighting against the great bureaucratic machine proves formidable, but in the end Watanabe triumphs, only however to have his efforts overlooked by the various government officials.
Watanabe dies about five months following his diagnosis, and the final third of the film takes place at his funeral, with all of the government officials present, both to ‘mourn’ the loss of Watanabe, but also to celebrate the completion of the park. The Deputy Mayor scoffs at the notion that Watanabe was largely responsible for the construction of the park, and the rest of the film plays as something of a detective story, culminating in the unified realization that it was indeed Watanabe who was responsible for the park’s construction. “We would have done the same” in his position, they declare. And with that they resolve to change their lives in a similar fashion. It’s both sad and humorous when we find them in the office the next day, busy with work as usual as though nothing had happened.
Ikiru, which means, “To live”, is a film with dual themes. One promoting the carpe diem mentality, using the realization of one’s impending death as the means; and the other a somewhat humorous commentary on social bureaucracy, laden with the view that it shackles society with its extraneous and inefficient brand of protocol. It’s an obvious lesson, but much like the complacent government officials at the end of the film, we all seem consigned to live under such an imperfect system. Ikiru is a well-conceived film, but it lacks the bite of Kurosawa’s other pictures. Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe like a man who is so overwhelmed by the weight of his condition that he is a total drag, but so is everyone else in the picture oddly enough, with the exception to the young girl he treats. Also, with a running time of 143 minutes, the film itself tends to drag in certain places—the final third especially so. This film lacks the really bright, memorable characters that Toshiro Mifune would often play in Kurosawa’s other films. And for that reason, it makes it at times burdensome to watch. Adding to this are closed-in backdrops, with dreary lighting. With a protagonist who is dying of terminal cancer, I felt Kurosawa might have been laying it on too thick at times. But the film’s messages are clear, and effectively communicated. Coming from someone who is quite familiar with Kurosawa’s work, I had an enjoyable time for the most part, but I will admit to missing the samurai at times.